`Give power to the people to combat squalor'

Problem housing estates: Charity calls for radical government strategy to tackle downward spiral of poverty and lawlessness
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The Independent Online
Britain's 2,000 worst housing estates can be saved from a downward spiral of poverty and lawlessness by introducing a radical 20-year strategy handing power back to tenants, an independent charitable foundation said yesterday.

The Joseph Rowntree Foundation wants the Government to set up a community resource fund to give local people access to specialist advice, training and running costs after dramatic improvements in estates where tenants became involved.

The foundation has funded a pounds 1.5m research programme in over 100 estates over the past two years called Action on Estates. Poverty emerged as the root cause of many problems.

Earlier this year the foundation's report on income and wealth estimated that the gap between rich and poor was at its widest for 50 years. In the council sector the number of economically inactive households is now a majority; only 41 per cent of household heads had jobs in 1991 compared with 59 per cent in 1979.

One in four children in secondary schools that serve difficult-to-let estates achieve no GCSEs compared to 1 in 20 nationally, and truanting is four times higher than average.

The problems of poverty are exacerbated by stereotyping. Estates suffer from "postcode" discrimination: taxi drivers and delivery vans will not go there, employers lose interest once addresses are quoted and it is almost impossible to get loans from financial institutions.

Marilyn Taylor, author of the report, Unleashing the Potential: Bringing residents to the centre of regeneration, said: "Such extremes of disadvantage and social stigma place huge pressure on family and community life and can create breeding grounds for loneliness and despair, racial harassment and crime."

But estates where the residents are in charge of day-to-day running have been transformed. Last year, 10 members of a gang from the Pennywell estate in Sunderland were jailed for a total of 57 years after almost killing a traffic policeman. Recently an initiative called Pride in Pennywell opened with a carnival attracting 5,000 people. The scheme has a newspaper and a radio show on Wear FM to publicise activities; Halton Moor, in Leeds, famous for joyriding, is halfway through renovations of its 1,100 properties; and Meadowell, in North Shields, the scene of riots, has a new youth centre built by a co-operative formed by local young people.

The report concludes that while it is crucial for residents to play a vital role, the Government must show the way by introducing a national strategy and starting a rolling programme of targeted investment. Money could be found from existing grants, the National Lottery or local business.

Government departments such as the Benefits Agency and DSS should also co-operate. "We want an enabling central government that allows resources to be released in the way local agencies feel is most appropriate," Ms Taylor said. "The positive message . . . is that targeting multiple disadvantaged neighbourhoods over a period of time and involving local people in the tasks of regeneration can produce significant improvements."

t Unleashing the Potential: Bringing residents to the centre of regeneration; Joseph Rowntree Foundation; pounds 10.50 & pounds 1 p&p.